Trying to go Nuclear

Posted: May 17, 2001 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- In the days preceding today's (Thursday's) unveiling of his energy program, President Bush found himself in a peculiar situation. His attempted revival of nuclear-generated electricity to combat a national power shortage is backed by his old enemies in the labor movement and hampered by bureaucrats in his own government as well as Republican allies in Nevada. On Monday afternoon, representatives of 22 labor unions -- backers of Al Gore against George W. Bush last year -- went to the White House to be briefed on nuclear power and other energy policies that they like. Seven blocks away at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Clinton holdovers were pushing regulations to undermine the new president's position. And across the continent in Las Vegas, Bush political allies readied an anti-nuclear campaign. Going nuclear isn't easy, even during an energy crisis. Since hysteria was spawned in 1979 by the Three Mile Island nuclear incident at Harrisburg, Pa., and Jane Fonda's anti-nuclear film "The China Syndrome," 103 plants providing 20 percent of the nation's power have operated without trouble. Still, not one new reactor has been licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Disposing of nuclear waste thrown off by the power reactors has been a major obstacle. A proposed repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev., a former weapons testing site 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, has been blocked by environmentalists and Nevada politicians backed by the gambling industry. That was enough for President Bill Clinton to stop Yucca Mountain, but his successor sees nuclear as a clean, safe alternative power source that no longer can be sacrificed at the altar of environmental correctness. The energy report by Vice President Dick Cheney's task force released today (Thursday) calls for both speedier NRC licensing and an approach to Yucca Mountain on the basis of science rather than politics. Based on science, the Energy Department said the repository probably wouldn't release radiation for 10,000 years. Nuclear support is building more than two decades after Three Mile Island. A Gallup Poll last week showed 48 percent support for using nuclear power with 44 percent opposed. Environmentalist Sen. John Kerry, a prospect for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, still resists opening Yucca Mountain but said April 27: "I will not dismiss the potential for technology to solve the existing problems with nuclear power." A possible rival, Sen. Joe Lieberman, said April 29 that nuclear power "should be part of a balanced option." Nuclear got another boost two weeks ago. A secret visitor to the White House was Martin J. Maddaloni, president of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices -- the plumbers and pipe fitters union. Building nuclear plants would mean jobs for his members, and he made clear that his was one union that would be very grateful. Maddaloni was among the labor leaders (not including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney) brought into the White House Monday to meet with Cheney. Included was Teamsters President James P. Hoffa. Not many of his members would get jobs from new nuclear power plants, but he told me: "We're for it. America has been scared off this idea." The National Academy of Sciences last year said there was no scientific basis for the EPA's suggestion that stored nuclear waste would poison the groundwater in Nevada. But in what one administration official called "my worst nightmare," the EPA's Clinton holdovers this week were trying to talk Administrator Christie Whitman into approving a groundwater radiation standard for Yucca Mountain. Former New Jersey Gov. Whitman is alone, surrounded by officials hostile to her administration. Not coincidentally, Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate Democratic Whip and a fierce foe of Yucca Mountain, has frozen confirmation of Bush's EPA nominations. Nevada Republicans are just as hostile. GOP Gov. Kenny Guinn is pushing for at least $10 million ($5 million from the state government) to fund a nationwide media campaign against transporting waste to his state. Advising Guinn in the anti-nuclear crusade is Sig Rogich, the Las Vegas publicist who was a close adviser to the elder George Bush and a financial supporter of his son. Casino owners who think that nuclear waste even 90 miles away might scare off gamblers are more than disinterested observers.